Milk Makeup only launched in January 2016, but already it’s a benchmark for budding makeup companies and among the indie labels.
The company was started by husband-and-wife duo Mazdack Rassi, the founder of photo studio/show space Milk Studios, and Zanna Roberts Rassi, Marie Claire’s fashion director at large, an E! News correspondent and a judge on Lifetime’s [Kim Kardashian–produced] beauty competition show, “Glam Masters.” Creative director Georgie Greville and product development veteran Dianna Ruth were also founders.
The makeup brand earned early buzz for hitting on a number of timely trends: genderless, minimalist and vegan. It’s also received an investment from private equity firm Main Post Partners, in January 2017, enabling a larger rollout through Sephora. As a result, it estimated doubled net sales in 2017; it saw $10 million in net sales in 2016, according to WWD.
Following the launch of Milk Makeup’s most recent launch, the cannabis-infused Kush Mascara, Zanna Roberts Rassi broke down the brand’s success formula and explained why clean beauty is the future.
What drove the launch of Milk Makeup?
It was always something everyone at Milk Studios talked about doing, and it felt like the right time [for the brand] to go from a B2B to a B2C business. People were getting very savvy in the way they were using makeup, and there was white space in beauty for something that was clean and cool at the same time. Plus, three of the four co-founders are women with kids — we wanted to be able to get ready really quickly. So we took our time to develop our ridiculously large amount of SKUs — more than 80, which is bananas for a new brand; once we started, we literally couldn’t hold ourselves back.
How instrumental was Sephora in getting the brand off the ground?
They provided us with a platform on a grand scale that we would not have otherwise had. Years ago, myself, Georgie [Greville] and [Mazdack] Rassi sat in a Sephora corner office and talked with the team there about our idea and dream line. They got it, immediately. From that moment on, they have been our biggest supporters. They are the leaders, the gold standard of beauty. Their curation of brands is the most relevant, and they have the cool factor. So launching the brand in Sephora made the most sense, and it has made for a great marriage.
You’re juggling many jobs — what are your day-to-day responsibilities at Milk Makeup?
There’s the editorial side, and there’s the product side. I come from an editorial background, so I’ll work with our editor on [Milk Makeup’s editorial platform:] Vibes about copy and the language we use, as well content ideas, be that a YouTube or Instagram strategy, or a story on Vibes. And for product development. I’ll meet with the team [to talk through] what’s coming up — I’m watching the trends at the fashion shows and behind the scenes, and I’m on the red carpet and having my own makeup done. I learn from the pros. For example, I saw how they were mixing a Vaseline type of product with a nude concealer to make a glossy eye, and that’s how our Eye Vinyl began.
Milk Makeup co-founder Zanna Roberts Rassi
What’s been the biggest change in the industry since you were a beauty editor [at Marie Claire UK] in the early aughts?
When I started, editors were the only people dispensing information. We were backstage at shows with [makeup artists] Pat McGrath, Val Garland and Dick Page, and getting their tips and tricks, and putting it in a magazine two months later. Now, the immediacy of it all and the how-to nature of beauty is just brilliant. Everybody can get with beauty; everyone can understand it, and everyone can learn how to do it well. And that’s why [beauty] makes so much sense for [Milk], being in the studio, the place where trends are born. We see the trends, and then we dispense them back out. We don’t have a pro line for that reason: We’re making it so that everybody can get the looks that are being created in studio.
How important is it for you to regularly post about the brand to your personal Instagram account [for your 140,000 followers]?
Very. I started posting [on Instagram] about applying products in the car — it was very organic, but it showed off the speed of use. It was, and is, wonderfully satisfying to get immediate feedback. If I do a serum post, Debra Messing is writing on my Instagram, “Oh my gosh, you need to do this for every product.” And Drew Barrymore is writing, “Zann, we need to talk about this,” and all these amazing people I really respect — in the [beauty] industry, as well — are writing and saying, “I need this product now!” I can’t believe they’re looking at my Instagram; it’s so flattering. And the brand awareness is invaluable.
How do the brand’s posts compare? In terms of marketing, what’s the vibe, or the voice?
We never want to be too cool, because then you’re alienating; that’s something I’ve always been conscious of. You want it to read like your friend talking to you. We’re not a wordy company; you’ll notice, even on the packaging, there aren’t a lot of words. And we don’t used superfluous adjectives to describe things; there’s no b.s., no floral language. It’s quite to-the-point, 1-2-3, “This is how you do it.” That’s very Milk, and every brand has to fit into that. Because we’re a utilitarian brand, our voice should be utilitarian, our packaging should be utilitarian, the usage of the product should be utilitarian, and the images should have a utilitarian, androgynous feel to them.
On that note, Milk Makeup was an early mover on the genderless beauty trend.
We cast guys in our first campaign years ago — it wasn’t about gender, just people. And how they wore makeup. We’ve always championed self-expression and inclusivity. Our community is for everyone, and our new launches will continue to reflect that.
How are you continuing to differentiate when, it seems, other brands are quick to borrow your ideas?
Dianna [Ruth], our COO, creates our products. Sometimes, I’ll call out [a very similar product and] be like, “Did you see this?” And she’s like, “It’s all good. I’ve moved on from that.” By the time [knockoffs] hit the market, we’re a year ahead. Fashion designers have been dealing with it for years; it’s commonplace. If this is what fast beauty is, that’s fine, because we are ahead of the curve. It’s always “eye on the prize” — and we’d much rather listen to our customers than a competitor.
Is customer feedback the main inspiration for product launches?
We listen to what they want and stay on top of what’s new in the ingredient world, and we fuse those two realms together in the form of makeup and skin care people love. With [our new] Kush Mascara, we wanted to make a high-volume mascara with fibers, but being a vegan brand, we didn’t want to use beeswax, which is a common binding ingredient in mascara formulas. We decided it would be the perfect time to introduce hemp-derived, CBD-infused cannabis.
Was transitioning to a vegan line in March difficult?
It was a no-brainer for us. We already were majority-vegan, and our customers are very tapped into environmental issues and clean beauty. They were thrilled when we took the next step and announced we’re officially cruelty-free, paraben-free and 100 percent vegan. Being clean is imperative; it’s the future, and it’s the only way we can advance in the beauty world. To me, it’s a form of wellness: If you’re not putting bad things on the skin — chemicals that will clog your pores, animal byproducts — you’re going to feel better, you’re going to look better, and you’re going to be doing something better for the planet. It’s almost karma!
How are you planning to grow the brand, moving forward?
International is top of mind right now. We can’t fight the global demand, nor do we want to. I can’t tell you the amount of email I get from England and Australia, with people saying, “When are you coming? Where is it? Can we have the exclusive?” I come from a British editorial background, and these are the friends I grew up with, going from a beauty assistant to a beauty editor to a beauty director. To go back 10 years later with our own beauty line would be incredibly satisfying.